washingtonpost.com  > Live Discussions > Technology > Fast Forward
Transcript

Fast Forward Live: Annual PC Guide

Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Personal Technology Columnist
Monday, November 24, 2003; 2:00 PM

Washington Post personal technology columnist Rob Pegoraro was online to talk about The Washington Post's annual guide to personal computers.

Read Rob's Fast Forward Column ("Mere Speed Is Not Enough"), or check out our Interactive PC Guide: (Flash required)

Rob Pegoraro (The Washington Post)


A transcript of today's discussion is below:

Fast Forward E-letter:

Want to know what upcoming topics are being covered? Sign up for Fast Forward e-letter -- get updated information on personal technology news and product demos. Read past editions of Rob's e-letter online here.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

________________________________________________

Rob Pegoraro: Good afternoon--it's time to talk computer shopping. And handheld shopping. And cell phone shopping. And whatever else you all might want to know.

First, though, this public-service announcement: I've already gotten one e-mail from a reader complaining that he couldn't price a Dell Dimension 4600 system for the price we listed, $999. The way to get that price is to enter the "e-value" code of 6V411-460RPW at this page on Dell's site.

Dell says they'll promoting this package deal, and it's going to be available for the rest of the holiday season. But should we list a price that requires this kind of effort to find? I'd like to see your thoughts on that.

On with the show!

_______________________

Malvern, Penn.: 1. What is the improvement in performance for computers using the 64 bit Athlon processors for present day 32 bit software?

2. What 64 bit operating systems and compliers are available?

3. What happens to a computer with Windows XP operating system both from operational (something fries, computer goes dead, windows repairs itself, windows need repairs, windows needs reinstallation)and activation with microsoft considerations, when:

1. I change the motherboard?

2. I change the processor?

3. I change the primary hard drive?

4. I change a peripheral such as the video card, sound card, network card, modem etc.?

If you can reply by e-mail, please do. My address is sarbjit_2001-yahoo.com. Thanks

sarbjit

Rob Pegoraro: 1) None if you're running Windows XP.

2) Linux and Mac OS X have some built-in support for 64-bit operations. Microsoft will be adding this before long to XP, I believe. (The lack of relevancy for 64-bit computing is why I didn't mention it in my column yesterday.)

3) You should be fine in most of those cases except the motherboard replacement (which would presumably mean your computer would lose its Ethernet address). Even so, then you'd just call up Microsoft and explain the situation, and you should be able to get a new activation code (or so I was told by a guy who's repeated this drill several times to put the same copy of XP on three or four machines).

_______________________

Beverly Hills, Calif.: I am planning to get a new PC for my work in the office and instead of buying a workstation I am thinking of buying a laptop with docking station and use it both in the office and at home. What are the pros and cons of this?

Rob Pegoraro: Pro: You can take it with you--the computer, that is. And you save on the cost of having to buy a home PC later on.

Con: The keyboard, mouse and screen will all be less capable than what you'd get on a desktop, and the laptop will cost more than a comparable desktop.

My suggestion: Get a laptop that has all the relevant hardware--i.e., the optical drive and all the USB ports you plan to use--built in. You don't want to haul the laptop *and* the docking station from office to home just to watch a DVD or whatever.

_______________________

Birmingham, Ala.: Hi Rob,

This is both a question and complaint. In the past year I have had a Dell Dimension that died and then a Sony Vaio that lost all its media drivers when I upgraded from XP Home to XP Pro (and Sony refused to do anything about it). Therefore, I got mad as hell, refused to take it anymore and went high-end. So - when are you going to start writing about real alternatives like the hot custom-made jobs from Voodoo, Falcon , etc. so the masses know there is an alternative to the pablum that they are being fed!

Thanks,

Charlie S.

Rob Pegoraro: Interesting: You get victimized by the PC industry twice, and your response is to give it more money. (Yeah, that's kind of an unfair reading of the situation, but the irony is hard to miss :)

We don't cover the high-end builders much for the simple reason that they cost so much. For the vast majority of people, as far as we've ever been able to tell, the name-brand manufacturers' hardware works just fine.

_______________________

Amsterdam, The Netherlands: How can I clear my harddisk from spyprograms and protect it against them? Why is the pc slowing down from this kind of program?

Rob Pegoraro: Download a copy of AdAware (www.lavasoftusa.com) to clean out the infestation, and try to be more selective in the future about what programs you download. Using a browser besides IE will also help.

_______________________

Leesburg, Va.: Why is IBM not on your list of reviewed PCs?

Rob Pegoraro: Because IBM hasn't made a serious play for the consumer marketplace in years. Regular folks do still buy ThinkPads, but NetVistas and ThinkCentres don't amount to squat in the home-computing business. And I believe IBM would agree with that assessment, given what I've heard from IBM's own people.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: Dear Rob,

I'm going to buy a new computer after Christmas. I want to keep good financial records, do my taxes, surf the net, listen to music and watch video on the net. I also want to be able to hook up an Ipod and move my cd collection to the Ipod through the new computer. Word processing and game playing are also important. I'm also considering joining an internet radio station as a D-J. What should I buy? And should I consider an Apple?

Thanks.

Rob Pegoraro: If game playing is important, you should not consider a Mac, unless you can deal with a lesser selection, and with having to wait for popular PC titles to be ported over to the Mac. Sometimes that wait is short--I read this a.m. that Halo will ship for Mac OS X on Dec. 11, which is not too many weeks after its debut on Windows--but in other cases a Mac version never arrives.

If you download iTunes for Windows (free, and better than the junk most vendors bundle) and get a PC with a six-pin FireWire port--easier to charge an iPod with--you'll be set for all the uses you mentioned.

_______________________

Dulles, Va.: Hi Rob,

What's the difference between the HP Pavilion laptops and Compaq laptops. I can't seem to figure out the distinction between these and the HP's website doesn't help very much.

Also, what's your take on Windows Media Center? Too buggy to be worth it?

Rob Pegoraro: In general, HP (the company, that is) positions Compaq hardware as the "value" end of the line, while HP-brand machines are supposed to incorporate more advanced technology and a finer degree of design. I think you can see that distinction fairly clearly in our writeups of a Compaq Presario and an HP Pavilion.

Media Center is a an interesting concept, but I don't see how relevant it can get when most people have the computer and the home theater in separate rooms--and when a lot of companies are working on hardware to network a PC with a home theater. (I plan on pursuing this comparison in a column in the next few weeks.)

_______________________

Upper Marlboro, Md.: I am interested in a high quality printer for digital photos. I am torn between the following new ones:

Canon i900D vs Epson R300M

If you have read the specs or know anything about them, which would recommend? Why?

They both are on the dealer shelves.

Rob Pegoraro: Any advice for Upper Marlboro? I've not tried either printer myself.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: For Amsterdam:

Another program which I've found to work extremely well alongside AdAware is SpyBot

http://download.com.com/3000-2144-10122137.html?part=104443&subj=dlpage&tag=button

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks. We reviewed SpyBot earlier this summer and liked it much, but it's definitely harder to use than AdAware. I usually recommend AdAware first; Spybot can be a backup if AdAware can't fix the problem.

_______________________

Tazewell, Tenn.: Just a quick question: I have been looking at the specs for a (current) top of the line game machine from Alienware, are they worth the extra bucks? About 4-500 more than Dell.

Rob Pegoraro: If you're really into gaming, Alienware could be worth a look--the company is all about packing the latest, greatest, shiniest video and audio into its boxes, and it does so with a lot more style than Dell. It also does a lot more fine-tuning and testing (for instance, the documentation with each Alienware PC indicates what movie was used to test the DVD drive on it).

But Dell has been responding with its own game-oriented machine lately, the Dimension XPS. I'm really not qualified to compare that with a new Alienware box; the decision on what to get is going to depend in a large part on "extras" like software bundle, tech support and, like it or not, one's own taste. As in, do you want to go with the name-brand Big Huge Company, or do you prefer to buy the "cooler" computer?

_______________________

Arlington, Va.: A lot of your recent column's recommendations make sense, but why did you steer people away from expansion slots, serial, parallel and ps2 ports? The price difference on these things is likely to be negligible, and they are important for when things go wrong: if you have bios or OS problems, a USB keyboard may not work, making PS2 a lifesaver. Hard drive installation is well within the reach of any competent teenager, data is getting bigger and expansion slots cost basically nothing. Even serial ports have their place: if your onboard video dies, a null-modem connection may be the only way a technician can work on the machine and retrieve your data.

Yes, most average consumers will never use these things. But they're very cheap, and will be there on "traditional" configurations -- in fact, the only PCs I can think of that are likely to not have them are exotic motherboards like the mini and micro ATX form factors, which are more likely to have their own heat, expansion and BIOS problems.

Rob Pegoraro: I recommend USB ports because it's the year 2003, and for all routine uses USB is vastly preferred to those legacy ports. You can plug and unplug devices without a problem, you can easily "borrow" either to use with any laptop (quite a few of which now leave out serial/parallel/PS2 ports) and most USB keyboards double as USB hubs, making it easier to plug in a cell phone or a digital camera off that extra port.

For all of those reasons, I would much rather get a USB keyboard and mouse on a new desktop. If manufacturers want to include the legacy ports as well, that's fine, but don't make me buy input devices that only connect to them.

_______________________

IE question, D.C.: Whenever I get a 404 error in IE 6, I automatically get sent to an MSN Search page. I just don't like it. I'd much rather be sent back to the page where I did my search, usually Yahoo or Google. Or if I can't get that, I would prefer a plain error page.

I already tried clearing the "show friendly HTTP errors" box in Options, but that doesn't seem to make a difference.

Is this just something you're stuck with if you have IE?

Rob Pegoraro: Dunno - my copy of IE 6 has that "friendly errors" option selected, but I get a real 404 page when I try visiting a nonexistent address on our site.

_______________________

Bowie, Md.: Rob, will I ever stop getting e-mails like (Sender:Subject) --

Microsoft Security Department: The Latest Patch

Admnistrator: Undeliverable Message

Elaine Woods: Why haven't you called?

Or is that e-mail address effectively and permanently dead now?

Rob Pegoraro: You will never stop getting e-mails like this until the last spammer and virus author is exiled to a suitable asteroid. The best you can do is try to keep your regular e-mail address as private as you can (i.e., set up a Yahoo or Hotmail account to hand out if necessary), set up a good system of filters in your mail client, and delete the junk that gets through anyway.

_______________________

Shepherd Park, D.C.: Rob,

Given that I'm competing against the annual buyers' guide, this question may not have a chance. But I'll try anyway.

I'm looking for a 3-in-1 printer/copier/scanner for under $200. The catch is that I'm running Win98. What do you recommend?

Thanks!

Rob Pegoraro: There are lots of all-in-one devices for under $200, and most of them should work fine Win 98--HP and Lexmark list Win 98 as a supported operating system for their hardware. (Epson does not, at least not for the CX5400 all-in-one.)

_______________________

Arlington, VA: Rob, Can you tell us things to look for when purchasing a flat screen monitor for our pc? Are there any specs we should be aware of, besides merely the size of the screen? What brands do you recommend?

Thanks,

Ben

Rob Pegoraro: The most important is resolution, which is why we list that. LCDs, unlike CRTs, look much better if run at their "native" resolution--the pixel counts we listed in each review. Contrast ratio is also worth a look (300:1 or better, but I think they're all at that level). Lastly, if you've got the option to connect the LCD to a digital-video (DVI) port on the PC, you should get a better-quality picture--but this may require buying a more expensive monitor and video card.

_______________________

Herndon, Va.: The Sony DRU510A multi-format DVD burner has gotten rave reviews, so I'm wondering if, when I purchase my new PC, I should buy one without any DVD burner, and buy this burner separately, because I haven't seen any computers that include such a good DVD burner as this one in the package? Or, is it better, more economical, and just as good to get what's included? I'm looking for a Media Center type of computer.

Rob Pegoraro: We reviewed a couple of desktops with dual-format DVD burners; since of them was a Sony, it's a safe bet it ships with a version of the drive you describe. You will definitely save money by buying a machine with a preinstalled DVD burner, but most manufacturers won't spec out the source of their components.

_______________________

Laurel, Md.: Rob, I once suggested Gene Weingarten ask the Invitational Czar run a contest to come up with questions along the lines of "Can God make a rock so big He can't lift it?" Example -- ask the computer salesperson for "a computer so good he wouldn't suggest taking the extended warranty."

Given the emphasis the stores place on those things, they must make a lot of money on them. But -- a lot of people would be just LOST once anything happened, and any kind of service is just darn expensive. Do they actually make sense for anyone; or will hardly any computers create a problem covered by a warranty in 3 years, anyway?

Rob Pegoraro: Did the Czar ever follow up on that thought? It's a good idea for a contest...

I'm not a fan of extended warranties myself, although for some categories of product--laptops, for instance--it may pay to buy extended coverage from the manufacturer. My own preference is to buy with a credit card that doubles the standard warranty; two years should be enough.

_______________________

Research Triangle Park, N.C.: On a PowerMac G4 running OS X Panther, I wish to combine a series of MP# files into a single composite MP3 file. Do you know what software will do this?

Rob Pegoraro: You could pay for a license key for QuickTime Pro ($30?) or you might want to try downloading a free program called Audacity (audacity.sourceforge.net), which can do that kind of editing for you (although you may need to export the MP3 tracks to .wav format in iTunes first).

_______________________

Olney, Md.: Where do Pocket PCs fit in the personal computer picture? I see that a 9 Gig CompactFlash card is now available. That's about all the disk space my office desktop had back in '97. (Signed G.V.)

Rob Pegoraro: Not a fan of Microsoft's Pocket PC handheld operating system. The company has gone way too long without addressing its glaring interface deficiences--really, without improving it much at all--while Palm has kept its simplicity while adding the calendar/contacts-management options that were once exclusive to Pocket PCs.

_______________________

Uppsala, Sweden: I am looking into getting a laptop. It looks like OS X beats Windows hands down. But how does it compare with Linux, or the BSDs? Is it worth the extra cost? I will want wireless internet, working with a digital camera, media playing, and word processing. Thanks.

Rob Pegoraro: How much do you enjoy tinkering with stuff? Linux can be a pretty straightforward install these days, but adding applications is way more work than in either Windows XP or OS X. Google the phrase "linux dependency hell" sometime :) Peripheral support is also vastly simpler in OS X.

Haven't tried any of the BSDs, except the one that's underneath Mac OS X.

_______________________

Chicago: Dear Mr. Pegoraro:

If there is one aspect of my present PC in which I am dissatisfied, it is in the graphics performance. I have a 2000 IBM Aptiva with graphics on the motherboard and no AGP plug for adding a graphics board. The 1 Mb of memory devoted to graphics is simply overwhelmed by programs like Adobe PageMaker and PhotoShop; even scrolling through documents in Adobe Acrobat Reader can be a time-consuming trial. I do not play games on the PC.

In shopping for a new PC for desktop publishing and possible Web design applications, will the on-motherboard "Intel Extreme Graphics" of many lower-priced machines be adequate for my needs, or do I need to hold out for a machine with a separate graphics board, and if so, which one?

Rob Pegoraro: Integrated graphics should be fine for everyday business uses, and for PageMaker (none of which are 3D apps that require a dedicated graphics' card bandwidth). Photoshop might be a special case, but I'm not the guy to ask about that--that app's a little too pricey for me to write about.

_______________________

Nebraska Avenue Complex...: Hi and thanks for the chat!; Digital cameras...ok, so only somewhat PC related...would you choose a 2 mega pixel with optical and digital zoom features over a 3mp with only digital zoom? Camera will be used mainly to e-mail photos and make 4x6 or 5x7 prints. Need to keep the cost under $150 hence the question!; Hope you'll answer. Thanks!;

Rob Pegoraro: Get the 2 MP camera with the optical zoom. Digital zoom is no different from cropping a photo--so your "zoomed" shots on the 3 MP model will probably the functional equivalent of optical-zoom shots on the 2 MP camera.

_______________________

Tampa, Fla.: My question concerns anti-virus software: do any of the major anti-virus companies allow multiple home PC use of a single purchase? I understand Norton's license limits using its software to a single computer and Norton's activation software prevents installing it on more than one home PC. Thus, a family with more than one home PC must buy either more than one package or buy a multi-use license. This ain't chump change. What about other manufacturers, such as McAfee?

Rob Pegoraro: I think they all have the same business terms these days. We did review a free anti-virus app a few weeks ago, AVG AntiVirus (can we get a link to that?), but the price of free is having to remember to download updates on your own--which in my experience, most people won't do.

_______________________

Alexandria, Va.: Rob,

I will shortly be making the move to a digital (mini-DV) camcorder. Could you compare the editing capabilities of the new digital video recorders (DVRs, PVRs) that include a DVD burner and firewire input (Panasonic and Pioneer models, for example) to the editing capabilities of a desktop computer with the similar hardware? thanks

Rob Pegoraro: No comparison at all. A set-top box DVD recorder will let you stitch together scenes and do basic trimming, but that's it. If you want to do anything more--use your choice of transitions, add a different soundtrack, whatever--you need to use a computer.

_______________________

Crofton, Md.: Rob, two areas I am always looking for answers in are, WiFi, and mp3 players. First, I keep hearing about all the "coffee shops, etc" that offer WiFi, but all i can find are Starbucks, and Borders at $6 an hr. Any clues as to where a comprehensive list of locations can be found would be appreciated. also I had read about McDonalds offering it, but no word so far. (p.s., the intel site doesn't offer much) Second, it seems to me, if you use a pda, you would be better served getting say the tungsten e w/ its built in mp3 player vs a separate player to lug around. Your thoughts, pro or con?

Rob Pegoraro: If it were easy to put together a comprehensive and up-to-date directory of free WiFi sites, somebody would've done it by now :) If you tried the Intel site and found it wanting, I'd look at www.cawnet.org, which is a site by a local association of WiFi users.

Yes, the Tungsten E-as-MP3 player approach makes sense--provided you don't want to rock out while jogging, and you don't need to listen to more than, say, four hours of music at a stretch. (SD Cards get really expensive after 256 megs)

_______________________

Herndon, Va.: Did I miss something? After reading your interactive gallery on your selected computers, and your articles, I could not find a definitive recommendation, only basically a listing of pluses and minuses. I was hoping to see some sort of numerical or at least subjective RANKING of models. Is it here somewhere? If not, can you give it to us? My focus is on DVD burning (per my previous question).

Rob Pegoraro: If it were possible to do that, we would. But--this is a thought I'm going to expand on in this Sunday's column--it can't be done, at least not in the context of a multi-function gadget like a home computer. As you can see, the iMac and the Dell Dimension both did very well, but a digital photographer who's set on Windows might find that the HP Pavilion works better yet.

The other complicating factor is that we only reviewed one machine from each manufacturer. You could add DVD burning to just about all the models we reviewed for a little extra money. That's why we spent so much space discussing things that apply to a manufacturers' entire line of PCs--software bundles, how up to date is Windows XP, what's tech support like.

_______________________

Sterling, Va.: OK, my wife and I are going to replace our five-year old Dell desktop PC. We are in disagreement as to whether a notebook or a desktop would be better for us. We are expecting a baby next year and we'll be taking lots of pictures/movies and editing them on the computer. I think a desktop would be better for this, and a better value overall. My wife likes the portability of a notebook but admits she probably wouldn't take it out of the house, just from one room to another, wherever the baby happens to be (she works from home part-time and uses the PC for work). Other than video, we use our PC mostly for internet/email as well as office tasks. Thanks.

Rob Pegoraro: A desktop will make more sense and save you money, unless you plan on adding a wireless network. When you're taking pictures of the kid learning to walk/talk/etc. (congratulations, BTW :), you'll be taking the camera, not the computer, around the house.

_______________________

Gaithersburg, Md.: Does one really need the MP3 kit (SD card reader, SD card, headphones) Palm sells to play MP3s on a Tungsten E? I've already got a card reader, and a 64MB card is simply too small to be useful (never thought I'd say that!)

Thanks for your help

Rob Pegoraro: No, you don't. You can get a much bigger capacity SD Card for the same price, and any old headphones will do--the T E has a standard headphone jack.

_______________________

Milwaukee: I have become leery of the security situation with Windows and am seriously thinking about switching to the Mac. I will use it for both business (corporate environment) and personal use. What do you think?

Rob Pegoraro: I think you need to look at what applications you need to use for work. If you do all your work over a VPN connection, you should be fine--OS X Panther has VPN support built in. But if you need to take individual files home and edit them, and the program needed isn't Microsoft Office, you could have compatibility issues.

In general, though, I think you are right to shop around for alternatives to Windows if the security situation bugs you.

_______________________

Rockville, Md.: The Business section is the first thing I read every Sunday - I know that you and your colleagues will have done me (and all your readers) a great service by reviewing phones & plans, PDAs, on-line music stores, and now, PCs.

Just got a new Dell, and had a IEEE1994 card installed so that I could sync up with my Creative Jukebox 3. Unfortunately, the computer recognizes the Jukebox if I use the USB cable, but not the Firewire cable (I'm using XP Pro and I hear some sort of tone that seems to indicate that the computer isn't recognizing the Jukebox). I -think- I have the latest drivers for the Jukebox, but I'm new to XP and have no idea how to begin to troubleshoot this. Yeah, I could stick with the USB, but I -paid- for the faster IEEE 1994 specifically for this application. Any suggestions?

Sorry for the long answer, and thanks for your columns and chats.

Rob Pegoraro: My first thought was "have you installed the latest drivers from off Creative's Web site"? That's what I'd do first. Unless the Jukebox 3 was built to present itself to the computer as a generic mass-storage device--i.e., the external hard drive it is underneath--XP (or any other OS) won't know what to do with it until you install the latest drivers (the ones on the CD may not be current).

But I'm just guessin' here. Anybody who's connected a Jukebox 3 to a Dell over FireWire?

_______________________

Bethesda, Md.: While you mentioned Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition in your article, it seems to me that it, and similar capabilities, are not currently being marketed properly. In particular, what one really needs is a reasonably small machine that can fit into a TV cabinet, is very quiet, and generally has a high WAF (wife approval factor).

Several manufacturers such as Soltek and Shuttle now market relatively quiet small form factor cases, and there are other vendors which make "pizza boxes" which are only about 5 inches tall, but are pretty wide and deep (e.g., 18"x18"). The problem is that Microsoft isn't selling Media Center as an OEM product, so it's difficult to impossible to build your own system with the appropriate form factor. Furthermore, none of the major OEM vendors are selling this form factor. Maybe this will come in the near future ...

Here are some references on the cases:

http://www.tomshardware.com/howto/20030318/index.html

http://store.yahoo.com/directron/antecoverture.html

(feel free to write an article on this :-)

Rob Pegoraro: Sure, but how are you supposed to use the Media Center as a computer? If you have to buy this *in addition to* your regular PC, we're talking about real money, and I'm not sure about the WAF (or HAF) of doubling the computing budget like that.

_______________________

San Francisco, Calif. : I heard that the new Apple computers come with a firewall. How good is it and what set up is required?

Thanks,

Drew

Rob Pegoraro: Good, basic firewall. It won't log attack attempts or do any other kind of debugging, and I don't think it blocks outgoing transmissions. But for free, it's enough.

Setting it up involves clicking one button in the "Sharing" system preferences pane.

_______________________

Rob Pegoraro: I'm in massive question overload here, but will endeavor to answer what I can in the next half hour, if that's OK with my producer. Producer?

_______________________

Okemos, Mich.: I have been using Macintosh computers for years mainly as a result of having started with them at work and wanting to have less hassles changing to PC's (e.g., buying new software, having my saved documents/emails compatible, etc.). On the other hand it seems that people using PC's get a lot more for their money. Is this your impression, or is the hype that Apple makes about the value and advantages of their computers, e.g. the new G5's, true?

Rob Pegoraro: A lot of Mac hardware has become *really* price competitive in the last few years--the eMac and the iBook, for instance.

But OTOH, the iMac is looking a little pricey these days, as our reviewer noted. And Apple's WiFi access points and cards are, IMHO, an absolute ripoff.

_______________________

Laurel, Md.: Why is the entire retail PC market centered around rebates?

The electronic stores in the Post Plastic Pack no longer quote every price as net $400 off with a 3-year subscription to an ISP. But usually its $100 from the manufacturer, $50 from the chain, and $50 off a cheap inkjet printer (doesn't every PC owner already have one of those they don't use?)

Can't anyone just CHARGE A LOWER PRICE?!?!?

Rob Pegoraro: Because then they couldn't count on making an extra profit off all the people who don't send in the rebate form, or fill it out incorrectly.

_______________________

Bethesda, Md.: Even after reading all the wonderful information that you provided in Sunday's Fast Forward section, I'm still confused about which optical drive options are best. Some manufacturers list a combined DVD+RW/+R/CD-RW drive but don't list speed. Is that better than having a separate 48X CD-RW and a separate 16X DVD-ROM? Will DVD RW become the thing of the future at the expense of CD RW?

Rob Pegoraro: CD recording is here to stay--there are hundreds of millions of computer drives and audio CD players that aren't going to be retired anytime soon. DVD burning will only be a supplement to that, for things like movie making and backup.

The main reason to get two different optical drives is to make it simple to duplicate discs. I can't think of any other time when you'd actually be able to use both drives at once.

_______________________

Silver Spring, Md.: To Mr. Pegoraro:

What is the best time to buy laptops? Currently, I'm interested in Dell and Sony. What is your recommendation? Yesterday my dad asked me to buy a sony laptop at COMPUSA. COMPUSA offered a deal that includes free stuff up to $350 if I buy a laptop above $999. So we looked at this model:

VAIO FRV31 Notebook

Intel? Celeron? Processor, 2.4GHz, 512MB RAM, 40GB Hard Drive, 15.0-inch XGA TFT Display, 8X DVD / 24X10X24 CD-RW Combo Drive, Microsoft? Windows? XP Home Edition

which costs $999 then after rebate it is $899. plus the free 350 dollars worth of stuff.

$350 Dollars items included:

Cyber Acoustics CA3080 2.1 Speaker System(#306796)

29.99 - 10 Instant Savings - 10 Mfr. Mail-In Rebate - 10 CompUSA Mail-In Rebate Norton SystemWorks 2004/ Personal Firewall 2004 Bundle (#307157)

89.99 - 10 Instant Savings - 50 PC Bundle Mfr. Mail-In Rebate - 30 Mfr. Upgd.Mail-In Rebate-

-Previous version required for upgrade rebate. SMC Wireless 802.11b 11Mbps Cable/DSL Router(#295202)

79.99 - 50 CompUSA Mail-In Rebate - 30 Mfr. Mail-In Rebate

Canon i250 Printer(#305311)

49.97 - 49.97 Mfr. Mail-In Rebate DVD Player DMP 310 (#307950)

49.99 - 15 Instant Savings - 35 CompUSA Mail-In Rebate APC 11-Outlet Surge Protector (#304215)

29.99 - 10 Instant Savings - 20 Mfr. Mail-In Rebate

PLUS

SMC Wireless 802.11b 11Mbps PC Card for Notebooks(#303367)

39.99 - 10 Instant Savings - 30 Mfr. Mail-In Rebate

-OR-

SMC Wireless 802.11b 11Mbps USB Adapter for Desktops & Notebooks(#284777)

49.99 - 10 Instant Savings - 40 Mfr. Mail-In Rebate

So right now, I'm really confused on what to do. Dell has some good deals too. It has the inspiron 5100 model with a free digital and printer for $1000.

My question is what this is the deal best deal. Or should I wait further more to buy a laptop.

Thanks,

Senthil

Rob Pegoraro: It was my understanding that there would be no math in this chat :)

40 gigs seems like a small hard drive. Sony is doing what I wrote about in my column--marketing processor speed above all else. I also don't know the weight of these two systems offhand. I would purchase the laptop with the bigger hard drive, more USB 2.0 ports, a FireWire port and/or the lighter weight (if it's only going to move from room to room, weight may not matter than much to you.)

_______________________

Alexandria, Va.: I have DAMon.exe on my computer. Can't get rid of it. I also get a weird -.ini file that is updated when I know no one is on the computer. So, the other day I went and looked at the running apps, right-clicked, and deleted it. Also tried to upgrade to the new iMesh. After doing both of those, my icons on my desktop for graphics changed, and all of them changed differently. I now can't get online. Tonight I want to re-load all the software (XP Home). I have a firewall (Norton). Any suggestions on how to keep DAMon.exe and other "spyware" apps off my system. I don't know enough to track these people. Thanks.

Rob Pegoraro: DAMon.exe is apparently Dell Alert Monitor, not some random spyware. If things are acting weirdly on your computer, odds are that it's from programs like iMesh--did you do a custom install to see what other stuff it installs?

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: Can you explain exactly how PC shipping to your home address works? If you're not at home, will the delivery person just leave your very expensive computer by the door? Can you ask that the delivery be held for you at UPS (or whatever?).

My only hesitation for online purchasing is the fact I won't be home when it arrives, and since I metro to work, I don't want it delivered there either.

Thanks!

Rob Pegoraro: The standard practice is to leave a note, not the entire PC, and you can then pick it up at FedEx or reschedule delivery for when you will be home. These companies have had a few years to work out this kind of situation....

_______________________

Baltimore: One thing I didn't see mentioned is support for systems. I know for a fact Dell consumer support is horrible now since it was outsourced to India. It took three hours to convince Dell that my hard disk had to be replaced (the loud scraping sound tipped it off to me). I've heard similar stories about Gateway, etc. Are there any consumer PC manufactures that are still noted for their support?

Rob Pegoraro: Our Dell reviewer had no such troubles. The Gateway reviewer also found tolerable support. Bottom line, though, is that your best tech support remains a computer-savvy friend who's willing to take the occasional panicked phone call.

_______________________

Somewhere, USA: In response to Malvern, 64-bit computing will be available in Longhorn, the next generation OS.

I believe you can change and add/remove up to 3 components before your initial activation fails in XP.

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks. FYI, Longhorn is due sometime in 2006. Which means it's way too soon to buy anything with Longhorn in mind.

_______________________

Bamberg, Germany: A few weeks ago you wrote a mostly positive review of Apple?s 15" Powerbook. Do you think, with the performance gap between the G5 Powermacs and Powerbooks growing, and even the iBooks somewhat catching up, that this is still a good time to buy a 17" or 15" Powerbook? How long do you expect will it take until there is a real step forward in performance for mobile Macs?

Rob Pegoraro: Excellent question. There's a reason why Apple went with IBM instead of Motorola for its next-gen desktop--the G5 is, by all accounts, a vast improvement over the G4. But it's also a vast step up in power consumption and heat, and it's going to take a while (like, at least six months) before it, or a version of it, finds its way into a laptop.

(I have no special knowledge of Apple's plans; the six-month figure is my a moderately educated guess on my part that could turn out to be completely wrong.)

_______________________

wodbine: what's the best pci video card for under 150 bucks?

Rob Pegoraro: PCI? None. You need an AGP card if your machine allows that option. If it doesn't, your PC is probably so old that it's due for outright replacement.

_______________________

Takoma Park, Md., Re: Jukebox and Firewire: Hi,

In response to an earlier post, I have a Dell Inspiron using XP Home, an IEEE port and a Nomad Jukebox 3. I have had no problem with it. And it is SO MUCH FASTER than the USB 1.0 port I also have used. I use Creative PlayCenter to organize and transfer files and it seems to immediately recognize the Jukebox.

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks. Did you have to do anything special to get the Dell to see the Jukebox 3?

_______________________

Ashburn, Va.: As the resident PC "guru" of the family (doesn't every family have one?), relatives come out of the woodwork every year around this time to ask my opinion on which computer/upgrade/peripheral to buy. For myself, I've always simply built my own machines from parts. I find it to be MUCH more economical and I neither waste money on useless extras nor skimp on the important parts. I can get exactly what I want at the best price, sans name brand and warranty.

My question, now that name brand PCs have started dropping in price, is it now worth the extra money for a name brand machine and its corresponding warranty?

Rob Pegoraro: Yes, because most people aren't PC gurus. They don't have the time or the expertise to custom-build a setup. That's the same reason why "home theater in a box" setups sell so well compared to separate components.

_______________________

Arlington, Va.: I'm leaning toward replacing my PC with a Mac. Can you tell me what "conversion" struggles I may face. Also, the IMac seems to be a lot more expensive than the E-Mac for the same features. Is it worth it?

Rob Pegoraro: The big one may just be getting used to Mac OS X. I think OS X is easier to use overall and I think I can prove it objectively, looking at things like "how many clicks does it take to up a firewall" or "how many screens do you have to click through to import photos from a digital camera," but learning new habits still takes time.

Then there's buying new software, which in most cases will mean dropping $150 on the student and teacher edition of Microsoft Office.

Lastly, you may need to look for new drivers for your existing hardware.

iMac versus eMac... it's a good question. My reviewer was kind of stuck on the same issue, but decided the iMac's style was worth it. As he wrote, not everyone will place the same priority on style at all costs.

_______________________

Takoma Park, Md.: Rob,

I don't want to be too issue-specific, but I am frustrated. I have a Dell Dimension XPS D300 -- yes, a Pentium II at 300 MHz, but it is extremely well-maintained and upgraded, with an internal DVD drive, an internal 250 MB ZIP drive, 384 mb RAM, Windows XP Professional, Linux Red Hat 9 on the second hard drive, etc., etc. I also run Windows and Office critical updates and standard updates regularly.

I use Office XP. A few weeks ago, I installed Outlook 2003 (just Outlook, not the entire Office 2003 package), and since then, I have been getting numerous "runtime error, do you want to debug?" messages in IE 6. I don't know that the installation of Outlook 2003 has anything to do with the runtime errors, but I am clueless how to resolve this. I can't seem to get a clean copy of IE 6 from anywhere.

Any suggestions? Thanks.

Rob Pegoraro: You should be able to get a clean copy of IE 6 right off Microsoft's site. But I'm guessing that you already tried it, and it didn't work--in which case, I dunno.

_______________________

Manassas, Va.: What exactly makes Intel's new centrino processor so good? Couldn't you save money and get a non-centrino laptop and just put in your own WIFI card for ~50 dollars.

Also, how does the performance compare to a pentium 4 mobile processors.

Rob Pegoraro: The Centrino WiFi card is of no special value at all. But the Pentium M processor inside the Centrino processor *is* very good indeed. The confusion is all the fault of Intel's marketing department. So, yes, you should buy a laptop with a Pentium M chip but somebody else's WiFi card.

_______________________

Ashburn, Va.: What are your thoughts on the new phone number portability law that goes into effect today? I know that they have forced the cell phone companies to do it, but I haven't heard if they charge for this service. Does it also apply to simply changing calling plans within the same carrier?

Rob Pegoraro: It's a great idea and long overdue. Haven't heard of anybody charging extra for it; if anything, some carriers are considering paying off the early-termination fees for customers of other carriers who elect to ditch contracts that haven't expired yet.

No carrier that I know of charges its customers to switch from one plan to another. That's why you should watch your bill and the current plans, so you can switch whenever a better deal arises.

_______________________

Takoma Park, Md., Re: Jukebox and Firewire: Hi,

The one thing I had to do to get the computer/Creative Play Center to recognize the Jukebox was turn the Jukebox on. It's power has to be on--it can't take power from the computer. Other than that, I just connected it to the IEEE port. Creative PlayCenter automatically recognizes it.

Is there perhaps a setting in XP for recognizing IEEE devices that has to be turned on? Or perhaps in Creative PlayCenter?

Good luck to the poster--working to get the IEEE port working is really worth it.

Rob Pegoraro: One more thing about Creative MP3 players, FireWire and Dell desktops

_______________________

Chicago: Rob, I own an iBook and want to buy a compatible printer-copier-fax for home use that will be capable of generating professional-quality letters. What models should I consider and how much will they cost?

Rob Pegoraro: You'll have a hard time spending over $200. My reviewers have liked Epson and HP's efforts; HP has one advantage, in that its machines aren't as physically big as Epson's. (The CX5200 Epson I have at home is freakin' huge.)

_______________________

Clemson, S.C.: I'm very tempted to replace my parents' computer (Dell 800 MHz) with the bottom of the line Mac, not because of any current problems with the computer, but because of the inherent dangers of web surfing. I don't live in the DC area anymore, so I can't go by their house to fix the computer and they are not computer savvy. On the other hand, they don't really do anything sensitive on the computer, like checking bank statements. It's mostly reading the online news. Do you think it's worth 800+ just for a little piece of mind (for me?)

Rob Pegoraro: If their e-mail addresses are public enough for them to be getting viruses in their inbox, and if they don't run Windows Update unless you remind them to--yes, you should think about that investment. Peace of mind is worth something these days.

_______________________

Manassas, Va.: re: tacoma park, md

open up IE, click on the advanced tab, and the check 'disable script debugging' to get rid of those 'runtime error- do you want to debug' windows.

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks

_______________________

Charlottesville, Va.: Any reason why there was no discussion of the sound card quality in the guide? Was it that you just limited the test to the speakers packaged with the computer and those speakers were not good enough to stress the cards, i.e. the speakers ran into problems before the cards did?

Rob Pegoraro: Sound cards are fine for most uses. The only reason I'd ever upgrade from the basic card is for playing games... playing two-channel audio is not a computationally intensive task.

_______________________

Stow, Ohio: I am running XP Pro on a Dell Dimension 8250. I have tried three times to upgrade to Service Pac 1 but each time my wireless Internet connection device (plugged into a USB port), as well as my iPOD device recognition, and maybe some other devices just disappear. I don't want to have to reinstall everything - I am very afraid I won't be able to do it, and I'll be left with a system that is half dead. So I have rolled back to the previous state. What should I do? I can't go forever without SP1, can I? PS. Dell answers on emails about this have been almost unintelligible.

Rob Pegoraro: If you really can't get SP1 to load, at least make sure that you have all the Critical Updates downloaded. If you don't, history suggests your computer will get hacked into sooner or later, and then you'll have to reinstall everything anyway--plus, you will have contributed to the ongoing pollution of the Internet by viruses.

_______________________

Crystal Ball Questions: Plasma & LCD - how soon before we see sub-$2k prices for larger sets 32" or 42"?

Camera Phones - how soon before we'll see camera's with 2 or 3 MP's built into a phone?

Rob Pegoraro: Mine is cracked, but I think it's trying to tell me that we'll see both things come to pass within the next 12 months. But don't quote me on this :)

_______________________

Arlington, Va.: Rob,

Of the four PCs I've owned, three were assembled to order at local "screwdriver shops." How do these small local vendors compare with the big box and direct sellers?

Rob Pegoraro: The hardware can be just as good, but the big variable is the lifespan of the store itself. If it goes bust, you're on your own in a way you won't be with a name-brand company. If you're knowledgeable enough to be your own fix-it person, sure, consider the screwdrivers shops (or, for that matter, DIY).

_______________________

Bethesda, Md.: Computer manufacturers are marketing computers with processors that utilize "hyperthreading" technology. Would you explain what this new technology is and whether it worth the hype - no pun intended.

Rob Pegoraro: Says Intel on its site: "This groundbreaking technology from Intel enables the processor to execute two threads (a part of a program) in parallel?so your software can run more efficiently and you can multitask more effectively than ever before."

Worth the hype? Not really. If you want to improve multitasking performance, more memory is a better investment.

_______________________

Mt. Vernon, Va.: We have 3 Windows PCs at home, but need to upgrade the desktop that is used mainly by our 3 children, all of whom are under 8. The iMac seems like a better choice than any of the Windows-based PCs you profiled; but, we have dozens of Windows CD ROM games/instructional programs for the kids. Is there any way to get them to run on a MAC? Thanks, RJ

Rob Pegoraro: Nope. The Virtual PC program you may have read about just won't run any graphically intense program at a tolerable speed.

_______________________

Washington, D.C: Can you suggest what type of printer would be compatible with a laptop for travel ?

Rob Pegoraro: As small and light as you can find. Canon and one or two other companies make portable inkjets.

_______________________

Re: warranties: I am suspicious of chain stores' warranties, but I spent the extra $99 with Dell to get a 3-year on-site warranty, and I have never regretted it. About two years into it a lightning bolt fried my motherboard and processor through my phone line (I had the power cords unplugged tho), and they kindly fixed it, although the person on the other end of the phone said that it wasn't technically covered under the warranty. I'll be more careful (and circumspect on the phone!;) in the future, but having that warranty sure helped ease my mind. And comparing my Dell experience with my parents' Gateway experience, Dell support is better. (No, I don't work for Dell!;)

BTW, what kind of affordable surge protector do you recommend for both power cords and phone lines? The one I had obviously was a piece of garbage, but I've never replaced it.

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks for sharing your experience.

I'd go with a name-brand surge protector like APC or Belkin, most of which protect both phone and power outlets. One of the newer, low-end Uninterruptable Power Supplies is another option--I just picked up APC's entry-level UPS for $40. (One of these days, I will get around to plugging my computer into it as well :)

_______________________

Ashburn, Va.: For Chicago: Given that you aren't playing high end games, keep in mind you can also get a fairly good PCI graphics card cheaply. An nVidia GeForce4 MX 440 (64MB) PCI card goes for less than $40 and (obviously) doesn't need an AGP slot.

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks for the tip (this is following up on the PCI video card question we had before).

Just a few more questions, and then I gotta get back to the day job.

_______________________

C-Ville, Va.: I am planning on building a PC with my brother over Christmas. While I understand most of the basics, do you have suggestions on where to locate a good guide?

Rob Pegoraro: Hit cpcug.org, the Web site of the Capital PC User Group, which regularly runs a seminar on this topic. With luck, they'll have their most recent presentation online.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: For regular day-to-day use (no high-end graphic work), aside from screen size, what are the advantages of the 15-inch PowerBook over the 12-inch or even the 14-inch iBook?

Rob Pegoraro: Screen resolution (the 14-in. iBook has the same resolution as the 12-incher), storage capacity, expansion (PC Card slot, DVI video output) and speed. I think only the first three are particularly relevant to your question.

The downside of the PowerBook: the software bundle is terrible (for home use) compared to what's on the iBook.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: Dell offers two versions of its entry-level inspiron 1100 -- one for home users for $799 and one for business customers for $699. The only difference, as far as I can see is that the home version has a dialup modem, which I don't need. Yet Dell refuses to sell me their business computer because I don't have some proof that I run a business. This seems odd and possible illegal. What do you think?

Rob Pegoraro: Illegal? IANAL. But if you want that level of customization, maybe you would be better off going with a screwdriver shop, as some people here have recommended.

_______________________

Vienna, Va.: What's your choice for browsers these days? I prefer to avoid the "evil empire" for anti-monopolist and conspiracy-theorist reasons as well as to avoid common pitfalls.

Rob Pegoraro: Mac OS X: Safari (favorite overall)

This Windows 2000 box: Mozilla 1.5

My ThinkPad: Mozilla Firebird 0.7 (which is likely to displace Mozilla on the Win 2000 machine).

This isn't an anti-Evil-Empire thing; I just prefer to use browsers that have been updated in this decade and support pop-up blocking and tabbed browsing.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: What are your thoughts on a refurbished desktop? laptop? More trouble than the savings? Thanks!!

Rob Pegoraro: Refurbished desktop? No real risk, and it's not expensive to repair if something does break. Laptop? Make sure it's got the same warranty as a new one.

_______________________

Edgewater, Md.: Hey Rob, Do you have any experience with the "V2Premier," computers being hawked on Shop NBC. They make it sound like the end-all and Be-all of computers and like you're getting much more value, particularly in software, than in stores. Any knowledge of the brand, or their reputation?

Rob Pegoraro: None whatsoever--your question is the first I'd heard of 'em.

_______________________

Alexandria, Va: More observation than question: the image next to this topic's link on the home page is a Mac. The link itself reads "PC Buying Tips." Maybe rename the article or use an image of a PC?

Rob Pegoraro: I'm old-fashioned enough to think that PC, as "Personal Computer," still works in general use. Is a Mac not a computer, and is it not designed for personal use? When I'm talking about machines that run Windows, then I use the phrase "Windows PCs."

_______________________

Miami: Hi, Rob. Easy question for you. I'm in the market for a PC. I'm not going to be gaming at all. What I will be doing is the following: (i) word processing; (ii) minor spreadsheet use; (iii) surfing the net; (iv) email; (iv) trying to figure out how to burn CD's; (v) trying to figure out how to do the iTunes thing; and (vi) management and minor editing of digital photos and video.

My budget is about $3,000 for the computer and screen. I'd like something very fast with a great screen (easy on my eyes). I have a pretty nice HP printer and scanner.

My current system is a Dell Dimension, which was good for about a year and then the hard drive died and the computer hasn't been the same ever since.

Could you please recommend a system for me, make and model, consistent with the parameters I've discussed above. Given my experience after year one (exactly three days after the warranty expired!), I'm also interested in the level of customer support and extent and scope of warranty. Dell's handling of my concerns was, to be charitable, lousy at best and downright indifferent at worst. But I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt if you're squarely in their corner.

Thanks,

Michael

Rob Pegoraro: No way you'll need to spend the $3,000. I've heard good things in general about Dell, but for the uses you describe any new PC from any vendor--or any Mac--should suffice. ITunes is a better fit in general on the Mac, and I really like iDVD and iMovie compared to Windows Movie Maker and the usual bundle of third-party DVD-burning software. But iPhoto impresses me less these days... Apple's gotta get that app running faster with huge photo collections.

But I digress. Whatever brand you'd buy, I'd recommend a 100-gig hard drive and a faster-than-usual processor (on account of the video editing thing), 512 megs of memory, a FireWire port and DVD-recordable drive (ditto) and a 17-inch LCD. You should be able to get that whole system for under $2,000 without looking too hard.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: Hi Rob,

I currently have Dell computer with a pentium III, 733mHz, 128MB RAM and am thinking about purchasing a new computer. I would like my computer to handle tasks related to digital photography. So, should I get a new computer, OR could I still get by adding more memory to it? Advice?

Rob Pegoraro: My laptop isn't that much faster, but it runs Photoshop Album at a more-than-acceptable speed. If your hard drive still has enough room, throwing in 384 or 512 megabytes of memory might get you a much faster machine, and for not more than $50 or so. Worst-case scenario, you'd at least have a higher resale value on the thing.

_______________________

Rob Pegoraro: And with that, I am outta here! I'm afraid I've set some kind of record for these things. Thanks for all the questions, and badger me in e-mail (rob at twp.com) if I missed yours. See y'all here again soon...

_______________________


© 2003 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive
Viewpoint: Paid Programming

Sponsored Discussion Archive
This forum offers sponsors a platform to discuss issues, new products, company information and other topics.

Read the Transcripts
Viewpoint: Paid Programming